Book Review: Eyes Behind Belligerence by K.P. Kollenborn

Eyes Behind Belligerence, by K.P. Kollenborn is a rich and fascinating fictional account of the experience of Japanese Americans in the internment camps during World War Two.

Kollenborn follows two main characters and their families throughout the war and its aftermath.  At the start of the war, Jim Yoshimura and Russell  Hamaguchi (AKA Goro) are Nisei high school students living in Winslow, on the island of Bainbridge off of Washington state. Jim is quiet, intellectual and introverted. Four years before, his older brother John had committed suicide and Jim blames his strict and overbearing father.  His family’s response was to act as though John had never existed. Jim detests his father and trusts no one.

Russell, in contrast to Jim, is extroverted and athletic. He very much wants to fit in as an American. He is embarrassed to be seen eating his mother’s Japanese cooking and discards it in favor of the school cafeteria fare. He takes up wrestling, dates a Filipina classmate and has white friends. The Yoshimura and Hamaguchi families know each other but are not close. The Yoshimuras are relatively prosperous while the Hamaguchis are impoverished. Russell and Jim have never been friends.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese in America are caught in one of those riptides of history. Suspicion abounds that some of them may be collaborating with the Japanese, and the already high level of prejudice against them as foreign and racially distinct, intensifies. Bowing to pressure from some elements in his military, President Franklin Roosevelt signs an order that all Japanese Americans, whether citizens or not, must be interned in relocation camps. Both Mr. Yoshimura and Mr. Hamaguchi are arrested by the FBI and taken to prison camps for investigation into their alleged pro-Japanese activities. Their families are transported to the Manzanar relocation camp soon thereafter. Thrown together, Jim and Russell slowly become friends and each supports the other through the painful crises that afflict their lives in the camp. It is not easy to endure the loss of freedom and life behind barbed wire.  In addition to physical hardships, there is a breakdown in the social fabric. Gangs of youths run wild, and resentment brings about the development of radical groups who foment rebellion.  At one point a riot breaks out and a number of camp residents are shot to death, including Sam, one of Jim and Russell’s friends.

As might be expected from their contrasting personalities, Jim and Russell have very different reactions  when the government compels them to confirm where their loyalties lie. Russell is eager to prove his worth as an American, and, when given a chance, enlists in the military. Jim resents his loyalty being questioned and refuses to even answer the questionnaire.  A seemingly unbridgeable rift develops between the two.

K.P. Kollenborn’s book is a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in U.S. history of that period.

On the negative side, Ms. Kollenborn’s prose is imaginative to the point of frequently being malapropic.  She uses “intimate” for “intimidate,” “Convolutions” for “Convulsions,” “Inflict” for “afflict.” etc. Reading her work is a bit like listening to a singer with a powerful but untrained voice. You know that with training and discipline she would be marvelous. Likewise, with proper professional editing, this book could be marvelous.



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